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    Five Tips for Great Electric Guitar Recordings at Home

    By Im Not Ironman | (edited)

    Five Tips for Great Electric Guitar Recordings at Home

    by Mitch Gallagher

    As guitar players, we spend countless hours — and often a lot of cash — ensuring we have the right instrument, the right pedals, the right amp, the best tubes, ideal speakers, even the best picks, all in service of developing our own signature tone. What a shame, then, if that tone doesn’t come across when we record tracks at home! Here are five tips that I’ve found useful for getting great-sounding electric guitar tracks in my home studio.

    1. Practice Good Hygiene

    Recording isn’t like practicing your instrument. It’s not like rehearsing your band. And it’s not like performing live onstage — even if you’re trying to capture a live performance of your band. It’s a very different experience because everything is under the microscope and you’ll hear things in a recording that never would have been noticed at a gig. Here are three “hygiene” areas you can focus on to get great-sounding tracks before you ever pick up a mic or hit the Record button.

    • Tune. Then tune again. And then check your tuning. One way I can often tell a pro session musician from many musicians recording at home is tuning. If you watch a pro in the studio, it’s not uncommon for them to check their tuning before every single take. That’s one part of it: accurately tuning the instrument. I use Peterson Strobostomp HD tuners on my boards, but even the least expensive clip-on tuner can do a great job…if you use it!

     

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    The second factor is having the instrument set up for proper intonation so it physically plays in tune as you change positions on the neck. I recommend installing fresh strings and checking intonation before making a recording. 

    The third aspect of this is simply playing in tune. It’s easy to pull a string or strings out of tune as you’re playing. Just a hint of extra pressure on a string can make it go sharp. In the heat of the moment onstage, no problem. But in a recording, you’ll hear it. Avoiding this a touch and ear thing that comes with practice and experience, and it really separates the pros from the not-so-pros. The best way to learn to play in tune is to record yourself — a lot — and listen carefully. You’ll quickly learn to hear where you’re pulling and pushing strings out of tune.

     

    • Practice. You may think you’re playing a part cleanly, but under the watchful eye of your DAW, flaws in rhythm, groove, technique, and execution may start to show up. Even if you’re going for a loose, raw feel, being able to cleanly execute the parts you want to play is essential for good-sounding recordings. Put in some extra time in the ‘shed before you hit the Record button.

     

    • Clean up your signal path. You may think your amp has no noise or that your rig is really clean. But put a microphone in front of it, and you may be dismayed to hear how much hum, buzz, and other noise is coming out of the speaker. Remember, we’re under a microscope here. You’d probably never notice any of that noise onstage. Go through your gear with a fine-tooth comb and clean it up: Good cables. Clean power — both AC and pedal power supplies. Amp maintenance. And then find the “quiet spots” in your room. Most noise in our rigs is actually airborne, and it can change dramatically depending on what direction your guitar or amp faces and where it’s placed in the room. Experiment to find the quietest locations and directions in your particular space. 

     

    • Clean up your signal path. You may think your amp has no noise or that your rig is really clean. But put a microphone in front of it, and you may be dismayed to hear how much hum, buzz, and other noise is coming out of the speaker. Remember, we’re under a microscope here. You’d probably never notice any of that noise onstage. Go through your gear with a fine-tooth comb and clean it up: Good cables. Clean power — both AC and pedal power supplies. Amp maintenance. And then find the “quiet spots” in your room. Most noise in our rigs is actually airborne, and it can change dramatically depending on what direction your guitar or amp faces and where it’s placed in the room. Experiment to find the quietest locations and directions in your particular space. 

    2. Knock Down the Room

    Okay, don’t literally knock down your room. But in most cases, you want to remove the sound of your room from the equation. Few of us have properly treated spaces at home that truly sound good. In fact, I recently saw an email from a pro recording engineer who was bemoaning that he had been listening to a bunch of musicians and bands on YouTube, and the experience was spoiled because he could hear the awful acoustical effects of their rooms on their recordings.

    So what can you do? Acoustic treatment is a big help. This is a topic for another article (or, blatant plug, pick up a copy of my book, Acoustic Design for the Home Studio), but look into absorbers and diffusion for mid and high frequencies and bass traps to control low end. Especially in small rooms (I’m in a 10’ x 11’ box) there will be serious resonance problems, and yes, those will be picked up by a microphone. 

    You can also consider using an isolation device — I’ve been using an sE Electronics Reflexion Filter myself. These prevent reflections of sound in the room from entering the microphone and can really improve a recording.

     

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    You can also use software after the fact to scrub reverb and room ambience from a recording. There are several great solutions; I’ve had excellent results lately using the De-Reverb module in iZotope’s RX software. I prefer not to “fix it in the mix,” but I’m not afraid to use these tools when it’s called for.

     

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    3. Have a Backup Plan

    Ideally, the tone you capture as you’re recording will be perfect for the final mix and will require minimal EQ or processing to work well. (As I said, I’m not a fan of “fix it in the mix”; I prefer to get it right at the source. It makes life so much easier.) But sometimes you’ll record a track and later find the tone just doesn’t work. Sigh…either go to work with an EQ or other processor or start over and re-record with a more well-suited tone.

    Or…give yourself a backup option! I make it a rule to always record a DI guitar track along with the amped track. I simply connect the guitar to a direct box (DI), route the direct out into an input on my audio interface to record in my DAW, and send the DI’s “thru” jack on to my usual guitar signal path (pedals and amp) and record that as well. This way, I’ve got the un-amped, direct guitar performance recorded. If the worst happens and a tone simply doesn’t work or I want a better tone, I can send that DI recording back out using a re-amp box, and easily re-record the amp with new settings, while keeping the same performance. Some audio interfaces, such as the IK Multimedia Axe I/O and Apogee Ensemble even have built-in re-amp outputs.

     

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    This is so much easier than starting from scratch. In fact, for my EP, Foundation, I recorded all of my guitars direct using a Radial JDI direct box as well as capturing a “scratch,” reference tone from my amp on another track. Then I went back and re-amped all those direct tracks using a Radial Reamp JCR-1. This let me fine-tune the tones so that I had to do little EQing or processing during mixdown. 

     

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    The Radials have worked great for me, but there are many other DI solutions out there. Two I recommend checking out are the new Radial HDI and the Useful Arts BF-S Pro. The Avalon U5 is also a go-to for many engineers and players. These are more expensive options than a basic DI box, but they’re also incredible tools. Keep in mind that a great DI is useful for a lot of things around the studio: keyboard, bass, acoustic/electric guitar, using pedals when mixing, and more.

    4. Multi-Mic

    The not-so-secret guitar-recording weapon of choice for many a pro recording engineer is the venerable Shure SM57 dynamic mic. Why? Because the SM57 just works. I’ve also had good luck with the Audix i5, Sennheiser MD-421, and various condenser mics, such as the Mojave Audio MA-200, Audio-Technica AT-4050, and more. A new favorite is the Audio-Technica AE2300 — love that mic on guitar cabs. You can’t go wrong with any of these. 

     

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    But the tip here is, don’t stop with just one mic. My current go-to (and also for many pro engineers) is to record each guitar track with both an SM57 or AE2300 and a Royer R-121 ribbon mic at the same time. (Royer even offers the brilliant Axemount SM-21 dual mic clip that makes it easy to place the R-121 and SM57 in proper alignment — I need to get a couple of those.) 

     

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    These two mics will sound dramatically different. When you record them to two separate tracks and blend to taste during mixdown, the combined result can sound huge. The sum is definitely greater than the two parts. Plus, you have the versatility to change the balance of the two mics to get even more tonal shading. Yes, you do use two tracks for each guitar part this way, but with today’s DAWs and unlimited tracks, who cares?

    5. Go Direct

    Maybe I’m weird, but I enjoy setting up microphones and dialing in a great tone for a recording. But as we saw above in this article, recording with microphones at home can sometimes be challenging — both because we may not be able to crank the amp up without annoying everyone in the neighborhood, but also because the mic(s) will pick up so much room ambience and outside noise. The cure? Use one of the many solutions for silently recording the tone you want direct into your computer, without using a mic. 

    There are four approaches to this: 

     

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    • Many amps these days have a built-in direct out that can send the amplified tone straight into your audio interface — most of these include speaker and microphone emulation so you get a convincing tone. An example I’ve used quite a bit for Sweetwater’s demo videos is the Fender Tonemaster Twin. We simply route the Twin’s emulated output directly into our cameras, and voila, done! Just about all digital or modeling amps have a way to do this, but we’re seeing more tube amps offer this sort of feature, too: Most Hughes & Kettner amps have a built-in Red Box. Mesa/Boogie Triple Crowns offer a built-in Cab Clone. Some Riveras include a built-in Mini RockRec, and so on. Most amps with this type of direct-out feature offer a switch that lets you turn off the speaker, so you can silence the amp while still recording the direct out. Very convenient.

     

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    • A second approach is to use a hardware amp/effects simulator, which is a processor that emulates the sound of various effects, amps, speakers, and microphones. You plug a guitar in and a fully produced, record-ready tone comes out, no amp required. Examples of this type of solution include the Line 6 Helix, the Kemper Profiler, Strymon Iridium, Headrush pedalboard, Hotone Ampero, Positive Grid BIAS amps, and many more. An advantage to many of these is that you can build a library of presets that can be recalled instantly, making it fast and easy to get to work recording with your favorite tone. I’ve heard some amazing results using these. When placed in the context of a finished mix, you’d never be able to tell a “real” amp wasn’t used.

     

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    • Third, use a software amp emulation. Whether a stand-alone app or a plug-in that loads in your DAW, a software amp simulator can be a very effective solution. You play guitar in using a direct box or instrument input on your audio interface, apply the plug-in, and you’ve got an amplified tone. Again, this can be very convincing in the context of a mix. And, you have the advantage that everything is taking place in your DAW, allowing you many benefits from a workflow standpoint. Plus, if your mix or arrangement changes, you can go back at any time and change the sound without having to re-record the guitar. Just recall the mix and change the plug-in or preset you’re using. I’ve had good luck with Line 6 Helix Native, IK’s various Amplitube packages, several of the Universal Audio UAD plug-ins, Native Instruments, Guitar Rig, and more. Pretty slick.

     

    • A final option will appeal to those of you — like me — who prefer to play through our trusty tube amplifiers: Use a load box/cab simulator to take the amplifier’s output and route it into your audio interface. You get all the benefits (and vibe) of using your “real” amp, but all the convenience of recording without microphones. Some folks have been surprised to learn that 90% of the guitars on my recent Foundation EP were recorded using tube amps into a Rivera Mini RockRec load box/speaker simulator. Best of all, no one has been able to tell me which tracks were recorded using mics and which were direct. I’m currently using four solutions at home for this: the afore-mentioned Rivera Mini RockRec, a Universal Audio OX, a Boss Waza Tube Amp Expander, and a Tone King Iron Man II. All have been working very well. Of course, there are many other options. Definitely check out the Two Notes Torpedo solutions, for example. 

     

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    The key with this is the “load box” part of the equation. A tube amp must see a load — a speaker — to operate without damage. A load box provides that load so that you can unhook the speaker and work silently into your audio interface. Then the cab simulator part of the equation provides the response and sound of a speaker and cabinet, microphones, and sometimes even room ambience effects. 

    As a bonus, I also use my load box/cab simulators when I’m practicing. This way I can get a great tone but keep the volume down, and I can listen through my studio monitors or headphones while I play along with backing tracks, woodshed with a metronome, or whatever I’m working on, and — this actually a big benefit — when I go to record, I’m acclimated to hearing my guitar/amp through studio monitors and/or headphones.

    GO RECORD

    There you have it: five tips that will help you get better-sounding electric guitar recordings out of your home studio. It’s a brave new world we live in when it comes to recording, and there are so many great tools available to help you get the job done, while preserving your precious tone. Plug in and make some music!

     

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    Mitch Gallagher, is one of the leading music/pro audio/audio recording authorities in the world. The former senior technical editor of Keyboard magazine and former editor-in-chief of EQ magazine, Gallagher has published thousands of articles, is the author of seven books and one instructional DVD, and appears in well over 500 videos on YouTube. He teaches audio recording and music business at Purdue University/Indiana University, and has appeared at festivals, conventions, and conferences around the world.

    Edited by Im Not Ironman

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